Category: helping the earth


By Sriya Narayanan

Once a sparkling village bustling with biodiversity and economic activity, Nenmeli in Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu, had watched its green cover fade over the years.

The village lands deteriorated over time

A grueling water scarcity issue followed. Young residents were forced to migrate to cities to look for work and the elderly stayed behind. Over time, the hill and the land near the village became barren. “What was a hundred acres came down to two or three acres,” says Dr Sudhakar, Director, CPR Environmental Education Centre.

Dr Sudhakar with folk art

Dr Sudhakar, who has been coordinating efforts to restore groves such as these since 1993, explains that many villages in South India have a tradition of demarcating specific forests as divine, particularly those attached to temple land, in order to safeguard the wildlife and trees, while also ensuring the ecological balance of the area. “In fear and favor of God,” he says, adding that the religious attachment is far more than mere symbolism, but a way to protect a precious ecosystem by tying it into practices that eventually become a way of life.

Over many years, Mr. R. Selvapandian of CPREEC (now retired) directly managed the work on the sacred groves, spending many months or years on each site, overseeing all aspects of the restoration from start to finish.

Mr. Selvapandian and Dr. Nanditha Krishna

Restoring the forests

In general, when CPREEC restores sacred forests, (they have so far restored 53 sacred groves), they rely on accounts from the village elders to be able to replant exactly the same trees that were there previously. However, in the case of Nenmeli, there was no living memory of the very ancient forest and the tradition of worship from the past. The degradation of the forest that had taken place over time had left a barren, lifeless hillside, surrounded by acres of land that had also deteriorated. The village leaders asked CPREEC to restore the ancient land, as closely they could, to what must have been there in the past, so that it could once again be a place of great beauty, peace, and spiritual connection.

A protective deity

It is common for villages to have a ‘kaaval deivam’ (Tamil for protective deity) that safeguards the village, and conduct annual festivals to worship and celebrate the deity. The village people feel enormous respect for their sacred groves. In reality, taking care of these groves is also an act of self-preservation, for there is a ripple effect in the way it sustains human well-being.

Seeking recovery

When villagers from Nenmeli approached CPREEC’s Sacred Grove Restoration Project in 1995, they were looking to inject new life into the land that had become barren and give it a fighting chance at recovery. Dr Sudhakar and his team took on the responsibility and followed a standard process that involves carefully planned planting projects and a three-year maintenance program after which the management of the restored land is handed back to the villagers.

Trees of Nenmeli

He differentiates CPREEC’s planting efforts from similarly well-intentioned, but misguided attempts where corporate organizations might plant saplings without adequate thought to their future caretaking or the suitability of those species to the area. The Sacred Grove Restoration Project, in contrast, takes care to aim for and achieve a 90% survival rate for the newly planted vegetation, bringing it to a point where it is self-sufficient.

The whole village is involved

Another important feature of the Project is the wholehearted and spirited contribution of the village’s residents to the restoration. The locals were instrumental, for instance, in cultivating a flourishing herbal garden while the entire village community took avid interest in CPREEC’s extensive training program. “We raised awareness on soil conservation and the water table and took these educational materials to schools and colleges as well,” says Dr Sudhakar. He upholds Nenmeli as a model eco-village and reveals that the concerted effort included walling the hillock in the center of the grove in the form of check dams and trenches to prevent soil erosion and desilting the two water-tanks attached to it.

He’s delighted to describe how the well in the area soon saw more than eight feet of water during even the driest of summers and how an erstwhile four acres soon blossomed into 25 acres. His favorite observation, however, pertains to the wildlife that silently and eagerly crept back into the now-replenished grove. “Porcupines, snakes, hares, and rabbits… oh, and as many as 39 varieties of birds!” he says of the result.

Once considered eccentric

He recalls how he and his ilk were considered eccentric back in the late eighties when they started sounding the warning signs about environmental disasters and how it took several decades for the restoration movement to finally gain force. With the guidance of CPREEC co-founder Dr. Nanditha Krishna, his team soldiered on, determined to give back to Mother Earth in exchange for everything she had provided us. “It was a mission, so one does not give up. We’ve come full circle,” he says, referring to how students as young as 18 are taking an interest in environmental protection today and how there’s a significant demand for conservation efforts.

He also speaks of how the government allows the Project to develop the land and provides funding for its maintenance. “The amount spent is more than worthwhile, given its priceless benefits to society,” he says, elaborating that the carbon sequestering properties of these trees is of particular importance.

Despite having worked on these projects for over three decades, Dr Sudhakar is untiring in his efforts, drawing inspiration from Nature itself. He marvels at its ability to come back to life from apparent extinction and take care of itself – and all of us – simply by being given the space and time to exist undisturbed. Meanwhile, Nenmeli’s Sacred Grove Restoration Project is now a success story that inspires many others to dream of the same possibility for their own hometowns, and a living, breathing reminder, that when we put our minds to it, life as we once knew it, can begin all over again.

Photos:

Top photo: Dr. Sudhakar / The restored sacred grove of Nenmeli

Second photo: Sharon St Joan / Dr Sudhakar, holding a sculpted bird, the artwork of island young people

Third photo: Sharon St Joan / Mr. Selvapandian and Dr. Nanditha Krishna

Fourth photo: Dr. Sudhakar / The planted trees of Nenmeli, now around thirty years old

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© Forest Voices of India, 2022

How to help

CPREEC’s (CPR Environmental Education Centre) work helps restore the natural beauty and health of India’s ancient forests, while guiding young people toward careers that benefit both their own future and the world of nature.

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